Let’s acknowledge this obvious fact from the start: people are not things. The house burns down, every item within is lost, but our family survives unhurt. We’ll take that every time. The car is totaled but our loved ones walk away. Eternally grateful as we replace the car. We go into the water and wallet, keys, and phone (!) are lost, but no lives. A near miss and a story with a good ending. People are not things and they matter more than (any) things.
But things do matter.
I’m reminded how much things matter, and what a challenge that can be, in recent days. Preparing to move houses and downsizing a bit now that the kids are grown and gone. Favorite toys and clothes from different times in our children’s lives. School work and art work. Books, lots of books, from chapters of all of our lives. Many things from both sides of the family have come our way, too, to help fill any previously unoccupied corner, drawer, or shelf. A dining room set, a grandparent’s Social Security card, a parent’s college transcript, artwork, antique tea cups and saucers, many brass candlesticks. What will go with us and what will go away? After many years of marriage, a friend is going through a difficult divorce. What was his or hers and what to do with all the rest that was theirs? Even at work, the new approach is to purge emails that are more than a year old. Yet, some of those old messages mean something important, don’t they? It feels like they do.
Things are not only physical things for us, of course, and their meaning and worth changes over time. All the things we keep are connectors to and reminders of a time that has passed because life has moved on. But memories remain and things anchor those memories, staking them into the ground of our lives to keep no matter how the wind blows and time passes. How many times do we find a keepsake and it takes us back to a person and a time that had faded in our memories?
Show and Tell
In children’s grief support groups, and sometimes for adults, too, there is a time for “show and tell” with a memory object—a thing which belonged to a person who died that now belongs to one left behind. Stories are told about the history of the object, its role in the life of the one who died and its role in the life of the one left behind. Sometimes it’s a piece of jewelry, bright and shiny, and other times it’s an old shirt, faded and worn. So many different things can be a “memory object,” and it’s particularly sad if a grieving person has no thing left to hold and connect. Sometimes with children, after admiring the object, an offer is made: how much would you take for this? $10? $50? $100? $1,000? A sale is never made as the lesson is clear—the value is beyond monetary price. It’s a different kind of worth.
Time does change the value of things. Some things valuable today will be less valuable in times to come. Many of us have had the experience of sorting through and cleaning out where we make this kind of decision: I’ll keep this for now, not ready to part yet, but there will be a time when I’ll let it go, just not now. There is only so much room in the closets, attics and basements of our homes and hearts, and as things accumulate, the priority of what is important—important enough to keep changes. Imagine a parent whose infant has died. The time was much too short and each thing—article of clothing, toy, blanket–associated with that baby is precious and kept. Imagine a parent whose infant grows up to have children of her own. There are years of clothing, toys, blankets, trophies, report cards and more. Those infant keepsakes have competition and every one may not be seen as needed because there are other things, other stakes in the ground, an abundance of things to hold onto.
Owning and Letting Go
Other things can become more valuable with time, especially after someone dies. It may be something which held little interest when the person was alive, but now that the person has died, it has power and importance. It is our tether to what and who has been lost and we hold on tightly, and sadly, we may come in conflict over it with other grieving people. Things are not people but they represent people. They are symbols of those we love and they help to soothe the empty places our hearts. And when these things are lost or broken, we feel we have lost that special person even more.
We think of owning things, but the concept of owning is problematic. The role of things in our lives should be one of service to help our lives be better, richer and more meaningful. There are times, however, when our ownership is upended and we find ourselves serving things rather than them serving us. Who is now owning who? And owning suggests a permanence that life does not provide. We have things for a while, or they have us, but life here eventually ends and all is let go.
People are not things but they can be confused. We can hold onto things like they were people, or we can make use of things to enrich our lives and remind us of who and what are of greatest value—people we love, memories, love itself. The most real things.
Center for Good Mourning